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This article was published 29/12/2015 (1656 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
A phone-tracking technology used for surveillance by some American law enforcement agencies is shrouded in secrecy when it comes to its use in Winnipeg.
StingRay devices, also known as IMSI catchers, are portable devices that pose as cell towers to intercept cellular signals and collect mobile data, including Internet browsing history, from any cellphone user in range.
StingRays are reportedly widely used in the United States, but the Winnipeg Police Service is the latest Canadian police department to refuse to confirm or deny use of the technology.
A recent Free Press freedom-of-information request for records relating to Winnipeg police's use of Stingray tracking devices or other cell-site simulators was refused on the grounds releasing such records would be harmful to law enforcement or investigative techniques.
The RCMP and Ontario Provincial Police, as well as municipal police forces in Toronto and Vancouver, for example, have declined similar requests by media outlets and privacy lawyers. The information and privacy commissioner of Ontario has upheld police's right to refuse to confirm or deny the existence of these kinds of records.
A spokesperson for the office of the Manitoba Ombudsman said no concerns about StingRay technology have been brought forward to its access and privacy division.
Privacy lawyer Andrew Buck, an associate with Pitblado Law in Winnipeg, said he has not heard concerns about Stingray devices in particular. But he said many Canadians are not well-informed about Stingray technology or how the devices are used -- and that could pose a problem if their use increases.
"I expect that what's going to happen if this technology continues to be used more and more in Canada -- because of course we know it's being used in the United States, that's been reported -- we'll probably see more privacy decisions, more complaints, these sorts of things, and the laws will have to adapt to understand what it is exactly this technology is doing and whether or not that's something that can be done without notice in Canada," he said.
"Any time technology is being used to collect, use or disclose personal information without consent, then that raises a concern that people aren't properly understanding what's happening with their personal information," Buck said.
Permission for police surveillance measures typically has to be granted by the court, but exceptions in Canada's privacy laws allow for some information to be collected without the public's consent. It's unclear whether use of Stingrays would fall under those exceptions, Buck said. Previous court cases have already established precedents on similar issues, including that Canadians have a reasonable expectation of privacy when they're browsing the Internet and police are allowed to search cellphones without a warrant if doing so is necessary to the investigation and as long as officers take proper notes.
The issue should be considered by the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada, Buck said.
"Once it gets on a privacy regulator's radar, then they'll have an opportunity to pop the hood and really understand what's happening and whether that's something that is acceptable or needs to be modified so that it does comply with our privacy laws," he said.
Katie May reports on courts, crime and justice for the Free Press.
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Updated on Tuesday, December 29, 2015 at 6:03 AM CST: Replaces photo
10:47 AM: Updates that the spokesperson for the office of the Manitoba Ombudsman said no concerns about StingRay technology have been brought forward to its access and privacy division.